THE BONE COLLECTOR - MUSIC OF THE HEART
HAPPY, TEXAS - BOYS DON'T CRY
THE STORY OF US - THREE KINGS
THE STRAIGHT STORY - SUPERSTAR
FIGHT CLUB - BRINGING OUT THE DEAD
THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND


THE BONE COLLECTOR

Denzel Washington is Lincoln Rhyme, a quadriplegic homicide detective injured in the line of duty. Bedridden and under the care of Thelma (Queen Latifah), Lincoln's superiors call upon his forensic skills when a serial killer brings a reign of terror on the city. But, the crippled cop can't do it alone, so he enlists the aid of a new young cop, Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie), to become his eyes and hands in their effort to stop the killer before he can strike again in director Phillip Noyce's "The Bone Collector."

Robin's review of 'The Bone Collector':
This has been a different kind of film year, distribution-wise. The "Star Wars" hype of last spring caused uproar in everyone's release scheduling for the summer and the ripples of this are felt in some of this fall's releases, still. The trite, formula films that are the usual alternative to the summer blockbuster, but not this year. Now, the fall schedule is being peppered with inane flicks and we are suffering with the likes of "The Story of Us" and "The Bone Collector."

Director Noyce, known for films like "The Saint" and "Patriot Games," has proven that he is a slave to his material. If it's bad, like "The Saint," then the film pretty much goes the same way. The material he has for "The Bone Collector" - screenplay by Jeremy Iacone from the novel by Jeffrey Deaver - is in the bad category. The story is a clone of "Dirty Harry" if Harry were in a full body cast. The crippled, superstar homicide detective (Washington) is called upon one more time to get the goods on yet another faceless maniac. The beautiful young cop (Jolie) brought in to help is reluctant at first, but grows to respect the surly Rhyme. In the meantime, the killer toys with them, leaving clues to his current and future murders. Nothing happens in the story that isn't telegraphed or seen before.

The cast, led by Washington, works their collective heart out to try to breathe life into the wooden story. Denzel has the toughest job of all as the crippled detective. The actor is almost completely immobilized through most of the film and has to rely on expression and dialog, rather than body language, to convey his character of Linc Rhymes. Jolie, who was a big disappointment in "Pushing Tin," does yeoman's work as the junior cop and helper but is otherwise unremarkable.

The rest of the supporting cast - Ed O'Neil, Mike McGlone and Queen Latifah - are given little to do and have to work hard to give their characters any depth. Michael Rooker must have drawn the short straw when they passed out the worst character role for the film. The venerable character actor Luis Guzman, after appearing in what must be hundreds of films, is finally given the chance in a more meaty role than usual. Too bad it's in "The Bone Collector."

Tech work is straightforward without being remarkable. It lacks the stylishness of superior serial killer thrillers live "Seven." Denzel is terrific, but, boy, does the bad guy needs a lot of work. I give "The Bone Collector" a C.

Laura's review of 'The Bone Collector':
"The Bone Collector," adapted from the Jeffrey Deaver novel, is subpar material given the high Hollywood gloss graced with a performance by Denzel Washington that the film doesn't deserve.

Washington is Lincoln Rhyme, an NYPD detective and noted forensics specialist, who suffered a horrendous accident on duty that left him with only the use of his head, upper shoulders and one finger. While he's still on the payroll and has access to some very high tech computer equipment, he fears 'becoming a vegetable' as the result of the many seizures that plague him and has arranged his 'final transition' with his doctor, much to the consternation of his home caregiver Thelma (a tip of the hat to Thelma Ritter performing a similar role in "Rear Window" maybe?).

Then a multibillionaire and his wife disappear from the airport in a cab. Street cop Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie, "Pushing Tin") responds to a call and discovers the man's body buried beneath railway bed gravel with a hand outstretched that bears his wife's wedding ring on a finger that's been skinned to the bone. Quick thinking Amelia, who's read Rhyme's books on forensics, gutsily stops a train to preserve evidence that the killer has apparently left on the tracks.

The Captain (Michael Rooker) heaps scorn on her for this action, but she gets Rhyme's admiration when she's brought to his attention by his old partner Paulie (Ed O'Neill, TV's "Married With Children"). The evidence is a puzzle tauntingly left by the killer that Rhyme believes will lead them to the victim's wife. He now has an interest that gives him a short term will to live and he insists that Amelia go into the field to act as his eyes and ears. She, of course, proves to have unerring instincts, if absolutely no experience, but even Amelia draws the line when Rhyme instructs her to saw off the hands of a victim in order to secure a set of manacles as evidence.

The story sets up several particularly gruesome murders (capped with the abduction of a young child and her grandfather) and a shadowy killer who leaves clues which Rhyme figures out with ridiculous ease (at least the book provided a geological/architectural history of Manhattan which made Rhymes deductions play a bit more feasibly). When Rhyme turns out to be the final target, a laughable finale is played out and the revelation of the killer's identity is boringly non-involving. And of course, Rhyme's will to live is given a boost from Amelia's growing romantic interest (her intial hostility melts as she realizes they're a true meeting of the minds).

Director Phillip Noyce, Denzel Washington and Luis Guzman (providing levity as a forensics tech) deserve all the credit for making this movie even marginally entertaining, even though Noyce resorts to 'jump out of the dark' scare tactics. I've found Washington bland in several of his recent roles but he really shines here given the challenge of acting, with no movement, from a bed. The rest of the cast is of no interest whatsoever, although Queen Latifah could have offered something as Thelma had she been given more to do. Particularly adrift is Michael Rooker who's left done in by a story that gives him no reason for his hysterically destructive behavior.

Tech credits are all fine, but "The Bone Collector" is gussied up trash.

C


MUSIC OF THE HEART

Based on the 1996 Oscar-nominated documentary "Small Wonders," "Music of the Heart" tells the story of Roberta Guaspari (Meryl Streep), a Navy wife with two small boys who, abandoned by her husband, makes a gutsy move to East Harlem and, along with school principal Janet Williams (Angela Bassett), begins a violin program which proves so popular, its students need to be chosen by lottery. When funding was pulled in its tenth year, help from none other than the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern resulted in a triumphant Carnegie Hall concert which extended the program for another three years.

Laura's review of 'Music Of The Heart':
"Music of the Heart" is a standard Rockyesque telling of an outstanding teacher story along the lines of "Stand and Deliver," yet it's so finely acted it's one of the finest of its genre.

Horror director Wes Craven ("A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Scream") chose this project to break out of his mold and he does a solid job with his cast (including over 150 children!) and material. Pamela Gray's ("A Walk on the Moon") script goes through the usual paces (Roberta has self-realization while encouraging one of her students, the harshness of the neighborhood is felt within the classroom, etc.), yet the main character is refreshingly flawed. As written, Roberta is heavy-handed with the discipline ("You're gonna make your parents sick!" she's fond of berating her students), which gets her into some hot water in these PC times. Her first attempt at amour with her hometown journalist friend Brian (Aidan Quinn) finds her seduced and abandoned a second time. In fact she completely gives up on romance until her teenage sons (played by Charlie Hofheimer and Kieran Culkin) place a singles ad for her behind her back.

The marvelous Meryl Streep, our finest actress, again disappears inside a character and is a joy to behold as she schlepps her musical instruments and backpacks around the school district. Streep spent 4-6 hours a day learning to play the violin (she had never played a musical instrument) like a professional and looks completely natural. Fine support is offered from Bassett as the no-nonsense principal, Gloria Estefan as a sympathetic teacher, Jane Leeves as photographer Dorothea von Haeften and particularly from Cloris Leachman as Roberta's mom. The students, of whom fully half had studied under the real Roberta, are all amazingly natural in front of the camera, perhaps Craven's most outstanding achievement with this film. Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and Mark O'Connor all appear as themselves.

Tech credits are all top notch with with the exception of one glaring continuity error (Roberta's hair rollers vanish during a kiss from Brian). Director of Photography Peter Deming and Production Designer Bruce Miller making the most of their NYC locations.

Endnote credits reveal that as a result of "Music of the Heart," Roberta Guaspari's violin program's funding has been reinstated, an uplifting finale for an uplifting film.

B+


HAPPY, TEXAS

Harry and Wayne are a pair of losers. Doing 3 to 5 for the Texas penal system, their luck changes when, while being transported, an armadillo in the road causes an accident and facilitates their escape. Eager to get to Mexico and freedom, the pair steals a RV, only to be stopped in the town of Happy by Sheriff Chappy Dent (William H. Macy). Unknown to the fleeing convicts, the stolen vehicle belongs to a gay couple from New York heading to the little town to head up the Little Miss Freshly Squeezed beauty pageant. What transpire are a major case of mistaken identity, a bank heist and a big change in the hearts and minds of the two cons in helmer/co-writer Mark Illsley's Happy, Texas.

Robin's review of 'Happy, Texas':
Jeremy Northam plays Harry Sawyer, the brightest of the pair, whom falls for the town's banker, Josephine McClintock, while he plans to rob her establishment. Steve Zahn is Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. Wayne is none too keen on pretending to be a homosexual pageant coordinator, especially when Harry leaves him, alone, to teach a gaggle of little girls to become beauty contestants. The two are both an odd couple and fish-out-of-water.

Jeremy Northam does a decent job with an American accent as Harry, but fails to capture a distinctive Texan drawl. His character is the most generic of all the principles in the film and least notable. Steve Zahn has steadily improved his comedic presence and acting ability since his earlier notice in That Thing You D!o As triple Wayne Jr., Zahn gives one of his best performances to date. He initially comes across as the dolt of this odd couple, making a lame attempt to be something he is not a trainer of little girls competing in beauty pageants. His little rags-to-riches metamorphosis into a caring choreographer is cliched, yes, but also amusingly handled by Zahn, especially as his dedication to his tiny wards grows.

Ally Parker leads the supporting cast as the town banker and love interest to Harry. Parker, as Jo, is fresh faced and likable as she fleshes out her character to more than just the usual two-dimensions of the love interes.t William H. Macy is outstanding as the sheriff of Happy. Chappy, a stalwart lawman, has a deep secret that the arrival of Harry and Wayne brings to the surface. He has suppressed his inner homosexual feelings for years, fearing it will make him less of a man. When he meets Harry (AKA Steven), he believes he has found a manly and kindred spirit. Chappy's coming out and his affection for Steven are done with warmth and humor. Paul Dooley mildly amuses as the town judge, volunteer fire chief and, possibly, dogcatcher. Ron Perlman makes a cameo type appearance as a Texas Ranger honcho called in to thwart the bank robbery. This last bit, with the Rangers shown as inept buffoons, is out of character with the rest of the flick.

The production values are evenly handled all around. Director Illsley gives the right note to the comedy with an original story (co-written by Illsley, Phil Reeves and Ed Stone) and the solid performances of his cast. The look of the film complements the tale with its small-town feel and homey touches. The pageant stuff, typically overblown and unrealistic in most Hollywood films, is dead on in its amateur realism of a local kids' beauty contest. The little kids making up the town entrants into the Little Miss contest actually look like real little girls, not actors.

Happy, Texsa is an amusing little comedy that showcases Steve Zahn, with William H. Macy's giving a sparkling performance as Sheriff Chappy. I give it a B-.


BOYS DON'T CRY

In 1996 Brandon Teena, a bewitching young man, arrived in Falls City, Nebraska. Popular with the ladies, he was soon in a relationship with Lana (Chloe Sevigny, "Kids"), the most popular girl in town. There was only one problem - Brandon Teena was really Teena Brandon and when this was discovered, it cost her her life.

Laura's review of 'Boys Don't Cry':
Directed by Kimberly Peirce from a screenplay by Peirce and Andy Bienen, "Boy's Don't Cry" is a devastating depiction of a true life story.

Hilary Swank ("The Next Karate Kid") stars as the troubled girl (she had run ins with the law over car theft and shoplifting in her hometown of Lincoln) with a 'sexual identity crisis' and gives a performance that should be remembered when Oscar ballots are mailed. We're introduced to her as she gleefully turns herself into a cowboy with swept back dark hair and a carefully placed rolled up sock. Her cousin Lonny (Matt McGrath) is dubious about the experiment, believing Teena's had enough trouble in her young life, but she's determined to meet a girl at a local roller rink. She meets many and soon we see locals smashing the windows of Lonny's trailer in retaliation for the dyke who's dared to date their sisters.

Brandon, as Teena now calls herself, takes to the road, promising Lonny to return to face a court date for grand theft auto. She arrives in Lincoln and is quickly taken under the wing of Candace (Alicia Goranson, TV's "Roseanne"), a single mother and local bartender who runs with a tough crowd. Candace's friends include John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III, "Hurrican Streets"), two young men recently released from jail.

Brandon also meets Lana, the on-again, off-again girlfriend of John, and is smitten, as is Lana. The group all hang out at Lana's where Lana's alcoholic mom (Jeannetta Arnette) reigns and encourages partying as if she were one of the crowd. Brandon does return for that court date, but bolts when she's called under her female persona and returns to Falls City, where she's soon identified by local cops. When her true identity is revealed, Lana remains true, but John and Tom are hell bent on revenge against the person they perceive as a freak, first raping and eventually murdering her and one of their own.

This is harsh stuff, but well worth seeing. The filmmakers inject an almost poetic quality to their filmmaking, with the smudgily seductive Lana shot in glorious reds and golds against the cool blues of Nebraska evening horizons. The screenplay presents Brandon as a rare androgynous creature, almost as fantastical as a unicorn (one woman says Brandon must 'come from a beautiful place'). Brandon and Lana make love under the stars in an otherworldly scene while maintaining believability that Lana wouldn't discover Brandon is a woman.

Hilary Swank owns the film with her too eager smiles begging to be liked mixed with a strange confidence defending woman from roughnecks in bars. She modulates her voice perfectly and bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Brandon Teena. Support is also first rate beginning with Chloe Sevigny's Lana, who acts toughened as a condition of her character's environment - she softens considerably when alone with Brandon. Alicia Goranson also makes a strong mark as Candace, the secondary woman to be 'betrayed' by Brandon. Peter Sarsgaard plays Tom as one of those people who's hair-trigger presence makes one nervous, yet he shows complexity in the character - there's a back story felt. Jeannetta Arnette is a unique mom character - more concerned with denying her age, she offers true support only when it's too late. Somewhat less successful are Brandon Sexton III as Tom, who appears to be little more than John's sidekick and commentator and Alison Folland ("To Die For") as Kate, another of the Falls City group who makes little impression.

The low budget "Boys Don't Cry" derailed a Drew Barrymore project on the same subject. While I like Drew, it's impossible to imagine anyone but Swank embodying Brandon Teena so richly.

A-

Robin's review of 'Boys Don't Cry':
"Boys Don't Cry" is a very different film about a young woman's who decides to cross genders and live life as a man in the mid-West. Hilary Swank is simply incredible as the film's focal character who decides she no longer wants to be a woman. Teena Brandon becomes Brandon Teena and moves into a new town where no one knows her/him. This true story pulls no punches as it depicts the lifestyle changes to Brendon and the eventual and violent impact it has on those around him.

"Boys" is a harsh film that carries an undercurrent of tension from the very start. You know the outcome from the beginning - Brandon will meet an untimely end. But, it's like watching a train wreck. You know it's going to happen and you can't stop it. But, you watch in fascination, too, as the inevitable unfolds.

Hilary Swank, as Brandon/Teena, gives a remarkable performance as a woman being a man. The young actress is quite pretty and works hard to lose that prettiness in the masculine aura of her change. The metamorphosis from Teena to Brandon is not a whimsical transformation, either. The dangers and harm that Brandon faces are real. The mid-western socio-political environment is not known for tolerance to radical, maybe perverse, thinking and actions. A girl posing as a boy and deceiving everyone, especially redneck guys, is destined for trouble.

Swank is tremendously effective as Brandon. It is a shock to the mind when you are visually confronted, violently, with her real sexuality in the last third of the film. The how and why of Brandon/Teena's sham is explained when she visits her friend, Lonny (Matt McGrath). We find out that Teena has a record of trouble that goes back years, including felony crimes like grand theft auto. She even dared to try out her adopted sexuality close to home - with unnerving prescient results.

Chloe Zavigney leads the supporting cast as Brandon's love interest Lana. The young actress, who made her debut in the controversial film, "Kids," lends a subtle, tragic air to her white trash existence. She falls for what's inside Brandon, not just how he looks or acts. Her acceptance of what Brandon is rings believable as she falls for him, too. Alicia Goranson (the original Becky on TV's "Rosanne") plays Brandon's Iago as she falls for the "guy" then betrays him to a pair of rednecks, John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendon Sexton III). The realization that a girl has duped them for months is too much for the misogynists to cope with. Their revenge results in tragedy.

Kimberly Peirce deftly directs "Boys Don't Cry", from her screenplay with co-writer Andy Bienen. Cinematography, by Jim Denault, utilizes the mostly nighttime and interior scenes to good effect, giving the film a bluish, contrasty look. Good use is made of the film's limited budget and shows a lot of talent on board, both in front of and behind the camera.

I give "Boys Don't Cry" a B+.


THE STORY OF US

Ben and Katie Jordan have two kids and 15 years of marriage together. Ben (Bruce Willis) fell in love with Katie because of her need to have everything in its place and know the answers to life's little questions. Katie (Michelle Pfeiffer) fell for Ben's imagination, spontaneity and playfulness. Now, after a decade and a half, the very qualities that attracted the couple to each other are now the cause of their marriage falling apart. The two decide on a trial separation while the kids are away at camp and that's when the sparks fly in director Rob Reiner's film about family in "The Story of Us."

Robin's review of 'The Story Of Us':
This is the most formula-driven, by the numbers family drama/comedy to come down the line since "Stepmom." And, this is no complement. The script, by Alan Zweibel ("North") and Jessie Nelson ("Stepmom") is routine at best. A couple grows apart over the years as their qualities change to liabilities in each other's eyes. Things come to a head, they reach a breaking point and agree to separate. In the end, Ben and Katie realize that they are made for each other and they live happily ever after. This is all peppered with little, anecdotal flashbacks of the good times and bad as their marriage matured and they drifted apart. You could sleep through the last ten minutes and not miss a thing. There is nothing original or even involving in "The Story of Us."

The direction by Rob Reiner is the flattest I have ever seen from the man. Where "The Princess Bride" was magical, funny, romantic and adventurous, "The Story of Us" is lightweight, dull and limp in its telling the story of marriage turmoil when there really isn't anything wrong. This boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl fluff is routine and directed without any passion by Reiner. I blame the screenplay by Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson.

Acting cannot be blamed. Willis and Pfeiffer are nicely matched as the couple in trouble. Willis is laid back as befits Ben. He's a good husband, provider, father and nice guy who drinks out of the carton when he can get away with it. Pfeiffer's Katie is an order freak who has to have things just a certain way. Willis and Pfeiffer try their best to breathe some life into their characters, but there really is nothing for them to hang on to. Supporting cast is led my Reiner and Rita Wilson as Stan and Rachel, the Jordan's Fred and Ethel Murtz. Wilson gets the most out her shrill, loud and opinionated best friend character. Reiner does his schtick with adequate amusement.

Paul Reiser is under utilized in his misguided friend role. Julie Hagerty as second best friend, Liza, does nothing. Colleen Rennison and Jake Sandvig, as the kids, play it squeaky clean-cut and trouble-free. Brief cameos by Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston Betty White and Red Buttons, as Ben and Katie's parents offer insight into the term - when a couple goes to bed, there are six of you there: you and your parents. Now there's a chilling thought!

There are too many interesting movies - at the theater or at home - that are better than "The Story of Us." "The Princess Bride," for example. I give "The Story of Us" a C.

Laura's review of 'The Story Of Us':
Ben and Katie Jordan (Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer) are at a crossroads in their fifteen year old marriage. The traits which drew them together in the first place (he's an impressionable, optimistic dreamer; she's a pragmatic organizer) are now what's driving them apart. They deposit twelve year old Josh and ten year old Erin at summer camp and begin a trial separation while the film begins to recount their story in flashback.

Director Rob Reiner, although not creditted for writing (Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson produced and wrote the screenplay), seemingly has taken his structure for his earlier "When Harry Met Sally" and removed all humor to create "The Story of Us." The screenplay is wildly hit and miss, peaking with dead on marital/relationship observations and plummetting with contrived, groan-inducing sitcom material.

It's to Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer's credit that this film succeeds at all - they both give their all and we never question their status as a long married couple who deeply love each other while contending with serious communication issues. However, when Pfeiffer is forced to talk to Willis over the phone as a washing machine overflows suds in the kitchen while the kids race around the table without ever telling him exactly why she's being so abrupt, no amount of acting skill can elevate the scene. Yet wait a while and the two are given credible material, when a cozy evening after returning from a romantic trip to Italy devolves into a shouting match - if you've been in a long term, live-in relationship, you've been there.

Support is mostly bland to bad, although Paul Reiser as Ben's chauvinistic buddy Dave isn't sporting his same old schtick and Rita Wilson as Katie's girlfriend Rachel delivers some strained comedic material with panache. Reiner himself, as Rachel's husband, should have known better after reading his part. Bill Kirchenbauer and Lucy Webb as the Kirbys from Cleveland have some nice bits as the perky American couple from hell on vacation in Italy.

Well done when it hits, "The Story of Us" is wasted potential. C+


THREE KINGS

March, 1991. The Gulf War has just ended. Television correspondent Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn, "Drop Dead Gorgeous") is hot on the trail of Green Beret Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney) for an exclusive story on this 'media war.' He dodges her when he hears that hot-shot Sergeant Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg, "Boogie Nights") has found a map on a POW that shows the location of Sadaam's secret bunkers full of stolen Kuwaiti gold - a veritable treasure map. They, along with Staff Sergeant Elgin (Ice Cube, "Anaconda") and the Barlow-worshipping Private Vig (director Spike Jonze, in his acting debut) set out in a Humvee at dawn to make their killing and be back by lunchtime.

Laura's review of 'Three Kings':
"Are we shooting? Are we shooting?" Captain Barlow calls across a sun-cracked desert terrain as he spies an armed Iraqi soldier in the opening sequence of "Three Kings." Receiving no answer, he shoots the enemy in the throat - his first kill of a war that's over. Approaching the man, Barlow watches him die a horrible death. Director Russell makes every bullet jarringly felt in a film that uses a lot of them.

Writer/director David O. Russell ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting With Disaster") has made a huge leap forward with his third film. This audacious, hyper-stylized multi-tiered film achieves on many levels.

Russell's screenplay is an action-adventure story, a war film, a blackly humorous satire and an indictment of American foreign politics all rolled into one. The cynical Gates stops along their journey for the group to practice their assault on a lone steer. The steer is blown sky high and the group proceeds covered in cow, which aids their mission by painting them as vicious slaughterers to the Iraqi Army. When they find the first bunker at the bottom of a remote town plaza's well (surreally filled with Cuisinarts, TVs and cell phones), the Iraqi soldiers simply step aside. The foursome find a row of suitcases filled with gold bullion which they repack in a convenient stash of Gucci luggage and enlist the Iraqis to help haul it out. Before they can leave town, however, they witness the Iraqi Army's terrorism of Iraqi civilian rebels - people whom George Bush has urged to rise up against Hussein, then failed to support. First Barlow, then Gates' humanity calls them to become reluctant heroes and the next thing they know they've restarted the war and are saddled with a group of Iraqi citizens yearning to escape to the Iran border.

George Clooney finds his second terrific role in a row with Archie Gates. His grizzled cynicism and sarcastic rebelliousness are well mixed with inate intelligence and bravery. Mark Wahlberg's Barlow earns the respect given him by Vig for entirely different reasons. Barlow's taken hostage by the Iraqis and submitted to torture yet comes to empathize with their predicament and question his own government. He's yearning for his young wife and baby at home (whom he calls when he finds a cache of cell phones in an attempt to be rescued). Ice Cube is the spiritual member of the group as Elgin, the most grounded. Spike Jonze's Vig is hilariously dim as the uneducated red neck ('Like the cubes you put in soup?' he asks Gates when Archie tells of the Kuwaiti bullion stored in their map's bunkers).

Fine support is given by Nora Dunn's ambitious reporter, Mykelti Williamson's no nonsense, policy abiding Colonel Horn and Jamie Kennedy ("Scream") as Walter, another dimwitted soldier who Gates assigns to distract Cruz.

Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel ("Apt Pupil") is stunning, with the intial part of the film shot in Ektachrome, a stock normally used for still photography, and processed using a technique called bleach bypass, which leaves a layer of silver on the negative. This produces a strange look where nothing appears quite real - a highly effective device to highlight the alien nature of the characters' surroundings. Special effects, such as the camera following a bullet through the human body or the characters' memories, shown in cartoon-like fashion, are eye popping. Locations in Arizona and Mexico combined with Catherine Hardwicke's ("Tank Girl") production design recreate the Iraqi terrain. The soundtrack is inventively chosen. The surreal quality of the whole package often recalls "Apocalypse Now."

"Three Kings" is dynamic collaborative filmmaking and one heck of a yarn.

A

Robin's review of 'Three Kings':
It's the end of Operation Desert Storm. The combined Allied forces have whipped Saddam Hussein and his elite Republican Army and, now, the victors are getting ready to leave. While on a mission to collect and disarm Iraqi soldiers, Sgt. Troy Barlow discovers a map hidden down the pants of one of the prisoners. The map, he discovers, shows the location of a couple of hidden bunkers. Troy and his friends, Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin and Pvt. Conrad Vig, realize the map is important, but don't know why. Enter Special Forces Major Archie Gates, a seasoned vet who comes to the conclusion that the chart shows the location of millions of dollars worth of stolen Kuwaiti gold bullion. Taking off on an unauthorized recon mission to find the gold and set themselves up for life, the quartet are heading for something far bigger than just money in director David O. Russell's "Three Kings."

When I first started to see the trailers for "Three Kings," I thought that it smacked of similarity to the 1970 Clint Eastwood war spoof, "Kelly's Heroes." Boy, was I wrong. "Kings" is anything but a caper movie. Sure, the premise is the same - stolen gold just waiting for the maverick American troops to take it and make their fortune. But, the gold becomes a secondary character as the true nature of things evolves. Their plan to "leave at dawn and be back by lunch" goes completely awry when the have a face-to-face encounter with the Iraqi people, a people now left to hang out to dry by international policy.

George Bush, at the height of the 100-hour land war, encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the dictator, Saddam, with promises of support. Then the war ended and American foreign policy turned its back on the Iraqi people, not lifting a finger to stop the massacre of the Iraqis by their own army. Archie, Troy, Chief and Conrad, on their journey to find booty, fall into a microcosm of these events at one of the bunker sites. There, they confront Iraqi troops torturing the rebels and killing innocent women and children. The red-blooded American soldiers are incensed by this brutal injustice and decide to turn the tables. This is the real story of "Three Kings" as they four vow to save as many of the civilians as they can and get the gold, too.

"Three Kings" is a pleasant surprise of a film. On the surface, it promises to be a good-looking actioner with appealing stars, lots of blow 'em up special F/X and a fast-paced story. But, it is much more than that. It deals with the politics of American foreign policy, the responsibility of the strong to take care of the weak, and the suffering of the innocents when that responsibility is not honored.

Helmer David O. Russell's first two films ("Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting with Disaster") gave no indication of the near masterly capabilities he displays in "Three Kings." He adapted the original story, by John Ridley, for the screen and harnesses an astonishing amount of energy and film sense in this portrayal of an erstwhile treasure hunt that turns into a quest to save human lives. This actioner has more heart and soul than it has a right to have. The use of fast-paced humor in the midst of the bleak events keeps things moving along at a brisk clip. You realize that, along with the explosions, mayhem and mirth, you learn some things that aren't really well known about the Gulf War and its aftermath. "Three Kings" proudly wears its heart on its shirtsleeve.

The production values are outstanding on all levels. There are the normal and expected kick-ass fireworks as cows are blown up, Humvees destroyed and with shootouts galore. There are also highly technical, in your face effects as Archie explains to his battleground novices just what happens when you get shot. You get an inside view of a bullet entering the human body and doing its lethal damage. This effect is later used when Sgt. Troy takes a bullet himself and has a lung collapse. It's a vivid, graphic depiction of the horror that war intrudes on the individual. Photography, by Newton Thomas Sigel ("The Usual Suspects") is innovative and looks great. A process called bleach bypass was used in developing the film, giving it colorless hard edge that lends a surreal quality to the finished product.

The acting by the principles and supporting cast is uniformly solid. It's a true ensemble film, with secondary characters, like Amir (Cliff Curtis) as a father and rebel who just wants his little girl to live in freedom, given three dimensions to work in. The stars are believable, with Mark Wahlberg getting the meatiest role as Sgt. Troy, a new daddy who just wants to go home to wife and baby. Clooney, Ice Cube and newcomer Spike Jonze give yeomen's efforts to their solid performances. Nora Dunn, as CNN-style correspondent Adriana Cruz, gives a rich and sensitive performance as a reporter who believes in her work and is emotionally affected by the horrors she sees.

You don't often get a film that is the caliber of "Three Kings." You get the roller-coaster ride you expect and a heck of a lot more. It's a treat when you think you're going to get a no-brainer and have your mind expanded a little bit. Go see it for the effects, action and treasure hunt story, but enjoy the intelligence, too. I give "Three Kings" an A-.


THE STRAIGHT STORY

In 1994, when Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, "The Grey Fox") was 73 years old, he couldn't see well enough to have a driver's license and required two canes to walk. One day, his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) takes a phone call that informs them that Alvin's brother Lyle has suffered a stroke over 300 miles away in Zion, Wisconsin. Alvin, who's a strong believer in family ties, hasn't spoken to his brother in ten years and is determined to visit Lyle and make things right. He builds a ramshackle trailer, hitches it to his riding lawn mower, and sets off on a remarkable journey from Laurens, Iowa in "The Straight Story."

Laura's review of 'The Straight Story':
The oddest thing I've seen on a movie screen this year is "Walt Disney Pictures presents - a film by David Lynch." Yes, that's right. David Lynch, who's given us such great, but horrifically dark, films like "Blue Velvet" and "Lost Highway," has delivered a G-rated film that still bears his unique stylistic stamp.

"The Straight Story" is based on a true story written for the screen by Lynch's partner Mary Sweeney (who also co-produced and editted) and John Roach. It's a heartwarming and inspiring tale showcased in America's heartland (Lynch and company filmed along Alvin's actual route).

The film's opening is reminiscent of "Blue Velvet," had Lynch's usual blue/gray pallette been replaced by the golds and reds of autumn. We're shown the main street of a small midwestern town, the only occupant a dog running across the street. Cut to an overhead shot of small, neat houses where a woman sunbathes between two of them. The camera crane dips to investigate the front of one of the houses, then slowly curves around to observe the heavy, middle-aged woman get up from her lawn chair and enter her own house to the right. Then the camera noses towards a window to the left from which we hear the sound of someone falling in distress.

This turns out to be Alvin, whose friend Bud discovers him lying on the kitchen floor, just as neighbor Dorothy and Alvin's daughter Rose also enter. A small town community and Alvin's physical decline has been elegantly, simply established.

When Alvin does set out on his journey, stocked with weiners, his old buddies watch in dismay. Alvin doesn't get far on his initial try with his old Rex lawn mower, but quickly makes a deal for a 1966 John Deere and is on the road again. He meets a runaway pregnant teen and convinces her in his own quiet way of the strength of family ties. He's almost blown off the road by huge semis. He weathers storms in abandoned barns. He's greeted by a bicycling group's camp and encounters near disaster when he's faced with his first hill about three quarters through his journey (his trailer has no brakes).

Farnsworth is a veteran actor who can convey deep levels of emotion in a very quiet, unprepossessing way. He handles the conflict of promoting family (while on the way to repair his own stubborn disassociation from his brother) with his eyes. He's a kind, decent, simple man who affects everyone around him, yet never seems saintly (watch how he handles two brothers who repair his mower or the agony of telling a stranger how his). own friendly fire killed a friend in WWII). Look for Oscar consideration next year for this performance.

Oscar winner Sissy Spacek's career has been rejuvenated lately in supporting roles ("Affliction"), and her Rose is no exception. She speaks in an oddly halting voice and has trouble discerning the difference between literal conversation and joking (we learn from Alvin later that she's considered 'slow,' although he refuses to believe that). Able support is provided by a cast of relative unknowns (many, Lynch regulars) who never seem anything other than the country folk they're portraying.

The film is gorgeously photographed, with fields of rippling wheat surrounding the long narrow highway Alvin travels, by Freddie Francis ("The Innocents," "The Elephant Man"). Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti's score is unmistakeable (often recalling "Twin Peaks" a bit too much). Mary Sweeney's editting suits the laid back approach to the story, yet surprises at the appropriately higher decibel, Lynchian moments (a woman strikes a deer with her car in front of Alvin - Lynch has a thing for car accidents - and then rants about how she's killed fourteen deer in the past seven weeks; Alvin loses control of his mower racing downhill as a small town fire department is on a practice run putting out a burning old homestead in the background).

"The Straight Story" concludes with grace - Alvin does find his brother and only the most necessary words are spoken (although Harry Dean Stanton is an odd casting choice as Lyle - he doesn't look anywhere near enough Alvin's age and there's no physical resemblance). While this movie isn't a masterpiece like "Blue Velvet," it may very well be Lynch's most personally felt film to date in a career I anticipate watching for years to come.

B+

Robin's review of 'The Straight Story':
A David Lynch film, G-rated, produced by Walt Disney Pictures. Who'd of thunk it. But, that's what we get with "The Straight Story." Based on a true-life journey, it's the story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a 73-year-old mid-westerner suffering from bad hips, the early stages of emphysema, deteriorating eye-sight and the news of his estranged brother, Lyle, suffering a major stroke. The brothers, as family members can do, had a big fight a decade earlier and haven't talked to each other since. Now, Alvin, a resourceful and stubborn man, makes the decision to go see his brother 350 miles away on a riding mower. This begins a very unusual road movie spanning the hearts and minds of Middle America.

David Lynch, known for his more avante garde works, such as "Blue Velvet," "Lost Highway," and his foray into television, "Twin Peaks," takes on a subject matter that, on the surface, is made-for-TV fare. Alvin Straight's story, though a triumph of the human will, is basically a story about a guy who traverses two states on a lawn mower. In the hands of the keen eyed Lynch, the story takes on a edge, almost a desperation, as Alvin sees his journey as a necessary purging of his inner spirit. Lynch lends his patented look and feel to much of the story with his recognizable visual slight of hand.

Alvin's odyssey begins, abruptly, with his hips giving out. He lay on the floor, helpless, until his daughter, Rose, comes to his rescue. This dependency and news of his brother Lyle's (Harry Dean Stanton) stroke force Alvin to a momentous decision. He can't drive a car, but he can drive his ride-'em mower. Building a makeshift trailer, Alvin stocks up on braunschweiger and wieners, packs up and hits the road amidst warnings by his friends that he won't make it out of town. From here, the meat of the film kicks in as Alvin and his homemade caravan begin the 350-mile journey.

Along the way, a fairly routine road movie unfolds as Alvin moves at a snail's pace across the mid-west. He meets a fellow traveler - a young woman running from home because of an out of wedlock pregnancy. Alvin gives his homey advice, comparing her to a stick, easily broken, and how the family is like a bundle of sticks, not so easily broken. The girl sees the old man's sense and is gone the next morning, leaving a neatly tied bundle of sticks. Very symbolic. The rest of the trip has the expected trials and tribulations, with Alvin receiving the kindness of strangers when he needs it most. It's all very life affirming.

What makes "The Straight Story" a bit more special than it might have been lay in the talents of the makers. David Lynch can't help but put his touches on the routine road story. The helmer can take a conventional scene and put a very funky twist on it. In one sequence, when Alvin leaves the flatness of the plains of Iowa and enters the hills of Wisconsin, he's about to enter a little town when the drive belt gives on his John Deere mower. As he picks up speed, out of control and moving faster and faster down hill into the town, the local fire department is staging a burn down of an old house. The juxtapostioning of Alvin's plight and the fire raises the tension levels a degree above the norm. This and other scenes are as signature as any done in the past by the director.

Richard Farnsworth is the strong suite here as the aging actor and former stunt man conveys how it feels to get old. It's not the fear of age or death, but the possibility of infirmity that makes growing old hard. At one point, when asked about what it's like getting old, Alvin responds: "The worst part about being old is remembering being young." Farnsworth's craggy features, rheumy eyes and cane-assisted gate lend a realistic and human quality to Alvin. The actor has always been a favorite of mine since his debut in the 1982 film, "The Grey Fox." In "The Straight Story," he continues to show his acting ability as he fleshes Alvin into a compassionate, but stubborn, man and a loving father who deeply cares for his slightly retarded daughter, Rose. The performance may not be Oscar worthy come year's end, but it is a solid, sensitive job by the elder actor.

Besides Lynch's capable direction, there is an elegance to the look of the film that is brought forth by veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis ("Glory"). Francis captures the beauty of the windblown fields, majestic sunsets and the golden hues of fall in the mid-west with a quality approaching still photography. Other tech aspects are solid but not outstanding.

Unknowns and just plain folk populate the supporting cast. Only Sissy Spacek, as Rose, stands out in the small role as Alvin's birdhouse building, daughter. It is yet another supporting role where Spacek shows her recently renewed acting mettle.

"The Straight Story" is, really, a pretty conventional story (about an unusual man), but David Lynch's touch is evident and lends his offbeat air to the proceedings. It's a nice story about human will, generosity and family. I give it a B.


SUPERSTAR

Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) dreams for a heart-stopping, Hollywood style French kiss from the 'best guy dancer' in school, Sky (Will Ferrell). Unfortunately, he's taken by Evian (Elaine Hendrix, "The Parent Trap"), a beautiful, blonde, bratty cheerleader. When St. Monica's announces a talent contest featuring a first prize trip to Hollywood and an appearance as an extra in a film 'with high moral principles,' Mary Katherine seizes her chance to become a "Superstar!"

Laura's review of 'Superstar':
Yet another Saturday Night Live sketch attempts to become a feature length film with middling results. While "Superstar" is innately likeable and features a truly gonzo performance by Molly Shannon as her SNL creation, the film is a whispy piffle featuring an uneven supporting cast and as many jokes that fall flat as succeed.

We're introduced to Mary Katherine as she makes out with a tree, miming the vomit-inducing adolescent behavior she's just witnessed between Sky and Evian. Her boisterous ambition never flags in the face of Evian's withering put-downs, although her frequent overstepping of the bounds of socially accepted behavior has her frequently muttering 'Sorry, sorry...' When she's put into a special needs class, she hooks up with a new best friend, Helen (Emmy Laybourne), a tough athletic type, and draws the attention of Slater (Harland Williams, "Rocket Man"), a teen who doesn't speak and is rumored to have hacked his parents into tiny bits. Another classmate is a goth girl who frequently brings up Satan in her Catholic school environment (she performs a seemingly possessed rendition of "The Devil Came Down to Georgia" for her talent show tryout).

Besides her natural gracelessness, Mary Katherine has another obstacle in her path on her road to winning the contest - her grandmother (veteran actress Glynis Johns) won't allow her to enter it because Mary Katherine's parents were stomped to death in an Irish Step Dancing competition. Of course grannie comes around and turns out to be a piano-playing choreographer who trains Mary Katherine's motley crew of classmates in a Broadway-like number. Mary Katherine gets TWO kisses after her performance and is surprised by the one she finds to her liking.

Shannon is a hoot as the irrepressible Gallagher and newcomer Laybourne gets some real comic spin on her brace-wearing Helen (the two go into a Super Model Documentary fantasy when bored in Church that gave me a fit of the giggles). Will Farrell is clueless as Sky and also shows up as Mary Katherine's version of Jesus. The rest of the cast is merely fair or worse. I found any scene with Johns to be dull and MTV's Canadian eccentric Tom Green, whose show I love, just distracts and make an ass out of himself.

Director Bruce McCulloch keeps things moving along, not difficult to accomplish with an under 90 minute run time. "Superstar" is unlikely to find much of an audience outside of fans of its lead character, but it does provide a smile or three.

C+

Robin's review of 'Superstar':
Aimed squarely at fans of Saturday Night Live, in general, and Mary Katherine Gallagher, in particular, "Superstar" is an oddball coming of age movie for the survivors of Catholic school education. Molly Shannon reprises her SNL role as the willful parochial schoolgirl, Mary Katherine who, since she was a little girl, has dreamed of the perfect first kiss - her Hollywood kiss. Now a teenager, she comes to realize the only way to get "the kiss" is to become a member of the stellar community that makes screen dreams come true. She decides to become a Superstar!

Having never seen Molly Shannon comedy skits on SNL, I was a little in the dark about what to expect in "Superstar." Mary Katherine Gallagher is initially a bit off-putting with her geekiness mixed with an intense belief in herself. Her nervous mannerisms, like always tripping over chairs and sniffing her fingers after tightly holding them in her armpits, make Mary a little weird. Shannon, though, gives such energy and solid comic timing to her performance, that you can't help but like the schoolgirl by the film's end. Nice touches, like Mary's nightly ritual of prayer, signing the cross, and throwing herself onto her bed in a Christ-like pose as she whispers her personal mantra - "superstar!" Shannon, with screenwriter and former SNL alum, Steven Wayne Koren, do a good job of making a comedy skit-level character into a person whose story can fill a feature length film.

The creative teaming of Shannon and Koren in developing Mary Katherine for the big screen is joined with a good, comedy-laden supporting cast. Will Ferrell, who made an amusing splash with director Bruce McCulloch as Woodward and Bernstein in "Dick," is perfect in his dual roles as high school heart throb, Sky, and Mary's fantasy imaginings of God. Although he's the most popular guy and best dancer at school, Sky is really a nice person who sees Mary for the cool chick she is. As the hippie-like God, Ferrell is priceless in his delivery of advice to Mary and her ambitions: "Get jiggy with it!" After Shannon, Ferrell is the best thing in the film.

Elaine Hendrix ("The Parent Trap"), as the "prettiest girl" at the school, gets to ham it up as Mary's nemesis, Evian (just like the water), and delivers a funny parody on the pig's blood scene from "Carrie." Newcomer Emmy Laybourne gives a surprisingly sensitive performance as Mary's new best friend, Helen, a natural athlete whose size and ability protects her, a bit, from others' snobbery. Veteran actress Glynis Johns is Mary's grandma and guardian who is afraid of her granddaughter's aspirations to greatness. (Granny's fear is explained as she tells Mary the darkly comic story of the death of the girl's parents, years ago, in a step dancing disaster.)

Helmer McCulloch shows his improvisational roots from his time as a performer and creative contributor of "The Kids In the Hall" TV shows. His background in skit-style comedy is apparent in "Superstar," with its choppy pace as he moves from one comic moment to the next. This makes the film, overall, feel more like a series of set pieces - for instance, a Thriller-esque fantasy dance number is fun, but a little out of context. The pieces are amusing, like Mary's obsession with practicing for her first kiss, using such substitutes as a tree and a street sign pole.

Mary Katherine Gallagher takes a little getting used to for the unwitting viewer. She grows on you, though, and, despite yourself, you get to like her quirky ways. For those raised in a Catholic school environment of discipline and ritual, you also get a chance to identify with Mary and have an extra laugh or two. I give "Superstar" a B-.


FIGHT CLUB

The Narrator (Edward Norton) has hit rock bottom. He's an insomniac who hates his job and his life. He even goes to support meetings for people suffering various ailments just for the chance to feel their and, thus, release his own. A kindred spirit, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter), invades his meetings and causes his sleeplessness to return. Things change with the fortuitous meeting with Tyler Durden, an enigmatic young man who represents everything the Narrator isn't, but wants to be. A whole new and violent world is introduced to the young man in "Fight Club."

Robin's review of 'Fight Club':
I was drawn to "Fight Club" mainly on the presence of its star, Edward Norton. Norton has proven his acting chops in "Primal Fear, his debut film, and, more recently, in "American History X." The talented young actor seemed a perfect match for the angst-ridden darkness of a film such as "Fight Club." Unfortunately, Norton is given a tough role as the Narrator. There is little flash for him to use, that being handed to Brad Pitt as the ambiguous Tyler. The lack of passion in the Narrator's character tends to keep his story at arm's length from the viewer. Even as a participant in the action, the nameless Narrator is merely another spectator to the action. His incredulous attitude toward Tyler is the only note carried through to the film's surprise ending.

Pitt, on the other hand, is given the luxury of being a supporting character in "Fight Club." The megastar has proven his ability when not called upon to be focus of the film, as in "Interview With a Vampire." Here, he gets to throw caution aside and go all out as the violent philosopher, Tyler Durden. Durden is so intense, focused and honestly violent that the messianic hold he has on his followers is palpable. It's one of the best things that Pitt has done and his performance helps to recommend the film.

The debut script by Jim Uhls, from the novel by Chuch Palahniuk, begins neatly enough with the Narrator suffering his insomnia and seeking, anywhere, relief. When Tyler Durden enters the picture, a tale of duality and obsession kicks in. The Narrator represents what is in life, while Tyler reps what can be. Their lines are clearly drawn as Tyler pushes the reluctant Narrator into making personal changes that will have a profound impact on many - maybe millions.

The Fight Club, itself, is a metaphor for life as the club draws together testosterone-laden individuals seeking the honest spirit of the Fight Club. "Everyone wants it, whether they know it or not," Tyler tells the Narrator as the power of Fight Club grows. As the club movement changes and the struggle between Tyler and the Narrator increases, the story switches from its metaphor to a tale of cult of personality and hate. Tyler becomes a messiah to the movement and develops his devotees into an army of terror. This is where "Fight Club" breaks down. The message of hate and the true nature of the Narrator and Tyler comes to the surface, unraveling the story as it first developed. The duality and possesion first breached early in the film falls aside and something akin to schizophrenia takes its place. Part two is less compelling than part one.

"Fight Club" is technically striking in its cinematic look and gory make-up effects. Veteran make-up master Rob Bottin does an exemplary job in showing the aftermath of the violence inherent in the Fight Club. In one scene, where the Narrator beats himself silly, you can almost feel the bruises well up.

The first half of "Fight Club" is quite compelling in its tale of duality. Part two unravels as hate replaces obsession. Still, I give it a B-.

Laura's review of 'Fight Club':
Adapted by Jim Uhls from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, "Fight Club" tells the tale of an unnamed everyman (Edward Norton) who's friendless, can't sleep and is stuck in a job he hates caught up in the grips of consumerism ('We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection.') It's a visious cycle which he alleviates somewhat when he discovers the outlet of support groups. He attends them all, meeting Bob (Meat Loaf Aday) at a testicular cancer support meeting, a man whose hormone therapy has caused him to grow large, pendulous breasts. But he meets the chain-smoking, tough talking, junkie punk Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, "The Wings of the Dove") at every meeting and her presence brings back his insomnia. Declaring her a 'tourist,' he gets her to agree to trade off on support nights, but before he gets a chance to enjoy the new arrangement, he meets a far more life-changing figure - Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).

Tyler Durden is everything our narrator wishes he were - hip, cool and unconcerned with the everyday. When his condo and all his possessions go up in a suspicious fire, it's Tyler he calls. After a night of boozing, Tyler instructs him to 'hit me as hard as you can,' and the triumphant release of sheer male aggression as the two beat the crap out of each other become the basis of Fight Club. Soon there are Fight Clubs, the most basic rule of which is not to talk about it, springing up all over the country and the name Tyler Durden is spoken with reverence. But our narrator becomes increasingly disturbed as first, Tyler takes up with Marla, whom he despises, and then begins to form an anarchistic army without including him in the plans.

Director David Fincher ("Seven," "The Game") has created a stylish but totally empty film with "Fight Club." There's a 'big twist' near the end of the film not unlike "The Sixth Sense," but my reaction to this movie was little more than a shrug of the shoulders. Interest is maintained right up until the point where you know where it's going and then the whole things goes up in a puff of smoke. The usually compelling Norton delivers a pretty pedestrian performance here. Bonham Carter, who hoped to shed her corset image with this flick, certainly has a bold new look but her character is woefully unnecessary as anything more than a conflict between the two central characters. Brad Pitt, on the other hand, gives his most interesting performance in quite some time as the oddly charasmatic Durden while looking like someone who slept under a pile of garbage (ironically, one of his income sources is the making of speciality soaps out of the stolen refuse of a liposuction clinic - 'selling the rich their fat asses back'). Credit is also due Meat Loaf Aday who creates a strangely sympathetic Bob and The Dust Brothers who deliver an appropriately apocalyptic score.

"Fight Club" is all style, little substance and one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

C


BRINGING OUT THE DEAD

Nicolas Cage stars as Frank, a burnt out Hells Kitchen EMS paramedic who's haunted by the dead he was unable to save. Constantly surrounded by junkies, drunks and the homeless, as well as wildly different ambulance partners, we follow Frank in his work over the course of 56 hours in Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead."

Laura's review of 'Bringing Out The Dead':
Director Martin Scorsese gets back to his hellish NYC street roots with "Bringing Out the Dead." Those streets are usually rainslicked, shot (by Dante Ferretti, "Casino") at night where neon signs reflect wildly over the pavement and windows of the vehicles that cruise them, strongly recalling the look and feel of "Taxi Driver." However, due to the eposidic nature of the source material (adapted by long term Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader from Joe Connelly's first novel), "Bringing Out the Dead" never achieves at the level of that earlier work.

Cage, who I was dreading would recycle his Oscar winning performance in "Leaving Las Vegas," gives his best, or at least most serious, performance since that film, but he doesn't manage to equal himself. Due to the internal nature of the story, it frequently must be put across with Cage's haunted, desperate look combined with his narration. He is a natural, however, becoming furious when his boss refuses to fire him or crumbling emotionally whenever he loses a patient.

Support from John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore as his three completely different ambulance partners is top notch. Goodman does his work as he bides his time before beginning his own EMS service and ensuring that the doesn't eat the same fast food two nights in a row. Rhames is a fatalistic faith healer, if that can be imagined, who also perceives himself as a ladies man (he flirts outrageously with their female dispatcher - the other two segments feature Scorsese himself on the radio). Sizemore is a crazed and fearless lunatic who views going out in the ambulance as entering a war. Also excellent is Marc Anthony ("Big Night") as Noel, a homeless nutcase whom Sizemore is intent on 'getting' and Frank is determined to save. Patricia Arquette is Mary (and Cage's real life wife), a troubled young woman whom Frank falls for after saving her father post cardiac arrest. She's always been an odd actress and she's OK, if not outstanding here. Mary Beth Hurt is delightfully funny as a cynical emergency room nurse who tries to get patients to justify their need for help.

Schrader's done a great job translating this material to the screen almost entirely intact, making it more cohesive. Scorsese uses some flashy techniques (fast forwards, etc.) to surrealize the action and mixes the drama with humor in just the right dose (the medics receive radio calls for demonic possession and an elderly woman with cockroaches in her ear). In one outstanding scene, Frank goes in to rescue Cy (Cliff Curtis, "The Piano"), a drug dealer who's supplied Mary with fixes and is now impaled on a balcony railing after a deal gone bad. As police torch the iron while Frank keeps hold of Cy's now human shishkebab, Cy watches the welding sparks fly against the NYC skyline and proclaims it beautiful.

"Bringing Out the Dead" may not be a masterpiece, but it's assuredly the work of a master filmmaker.

B+


THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND

Elmo loves his blanket, Blanket. They are best friends and almost inseparable, until fate enters the picture. Blanket, because of a selfish action by Elmo, is blown away from the little monster and lands in the hands of Oscar the Grouch. Oscar blows his nose on the binky and tosses it into his trash can. When Elmo goes into the can after Blanket, he enters the world of Grouchland and begins a journey to find his precious mantle. The ruler of Grouchland, the greedy Huxley (Mandy Patinkin), has taken Blanket for his own and it is up to Elmo to get it back in "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland."

Robin's review of 'The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland':
"The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" is one of the best little kids' film to show up since "Muppet Treasure Island," maybe longer. The puppet masters at Jim Henson Productions, in conjunction with Children's Television Workshop, meld elements and characters from the long-running "Sesame Street" TV show and the musical numbers and slightly subversive humor from the old Muppet Show.

As one would expect, the ties to Sesame Street are many. From the opening sequence when the film starts with a countdown from 10 to 1 (led by Bert and Ernie) to its tale of Elmo's redemption from selfishness, the movie pays much homage to its roots in the groundbreaking TV show. Good values and positive role models make this a movie that parents can feel good about for their kids. Sweet and adorable Elmo (voiced by Kevin Clash) is perfect as the hero who learns why being selfish is wrong. Mandy Patinkin is outstanding as the selfish Huxley and personifies greed. When Elmo defeats him, the kids will cheer. Vanessa Williams is terrific as the Queen of Trash and is a natural with her puppet minion. Of course, there is also the roster of Sesame Street characters. Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert & Ernie and the rest all help out Elmo in his quest and are a ready made identifier for the toddler set.

The music numbers used to entertain and carry the story forward are beautifully done and provide real variety. Patinkin's Huxley shows that being selfish is not a good thing with his manic song, "Make It Mine!" Vanessa Williams, as the Queen of Trash belts out the virtues of garbage with the upbeat "Point of View." The inherent good humor of the film is exemplified by the rousing Grouch number, "Welcome to Grouchland - Now Scram!" Elmo is inspired to overcome his fears when the grouches sing "Take the First Step." Parents won't mind when the kids watch this on video a couple of hundred times. They'll most likely sing right along, too.

First-time helmer Gary Halvorson and his talented cast and crew capture the mirth and big heart of Jim Henson's creation. Bert & Ernie and works hard to involve the diminutive viewers in the action narrate the movie, sort of. B&E and Elmo talk directly to the kids, from time to time, soliciting vocal assistance form the audience. Some parents may not be too happy, though, when Elmo is faced with The Ultimate Challenge - he has to give 100 "raspberries" in 30 seconds and asks for help from the kids watching. Hopefully, raspberries won't become the set response by the kindergarten set.

"The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland" is one monster movie that parents won't mind the kids watching. You can see why Elmo attained a cult following a couple of years ago. He's a nice little monster and a good model for kids to emulate. There is humor, song, outstanding fantasy creatures and sets, and just a whole lot of fun. "Elmo" scores a bull's-eye with its target audience of little kids (and their parents). I give it an A-.

Laura's review of 'The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland':
Little, red furry Elmo is the 'baby' of Sesame St. and all its denizens watch out for him. Elmo loves his blanket very much and when his best friend attempts to hold it, Elmo grabs it back until it rips and then is tossed into the air by a roller blading muppet and hurtles into Oscar the Grouch's garbage can. Distraught, Elmo enters Oscar's domain and falls into a psychedelic portal to Grouchland, where everything smells and no one will cooperate.

Grouchland is kept under the thumb of the evil tyrant Huxley (Mandy Patinkin) who takes every material object he wants and declares it his (he has 'Mine' stamped onto everything). Of course, as soon as Elmo locates his blanket on a dump heap, Huxley snatches it away. The pursuit of Elmo's blanket, and the Sesame St. humans and muppets attempt to go to Grouchland and find Elmo, make up the drama of "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland."

This is a sweet little film that will amuse (and teach) the kiddies (about seven and under, I'd say). Bert and Ernie intro the film and frequently stop it to comment on the action - they also encourage audience participation in such things as countdowns (childrens' responses can be heard on the soundtrack). There are a few clever asides for the adults (a jibe at Starbucks, Bert and Ernie's discussion on 'happy endings') and Patinkin makes villainous hay while performing some Broadway-like numbers. Also on hand is Vanessa Williams ("Dance With Me") as the Trash Queen who performs a vampy song and dance routine (before encouraging Elmo to pay a toll of 'raspberries,' which surely will have parents shuddering!)

Elmo and his friends prevail, but not before Elmo's had some serious self-relevation about his own selfishnous. The film looks bright and cheerful and moves along at under 90 minutes.

B


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